CBS commentator Nick Faldo opened his Sunday broadcast of the Masters by teasing the audience about the potential for a historic repeat. However, he wasn’t talking about Jordan Spieth’s quest to be only the fourth repeat champion in tournament history after Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and himself. No, he was pointing out the eerie similarities in the position of Bernhard Langer in 1985 and 2016. The all-time German great began the final round of the 1985 Masters in third place, two strokes behind the lead, and won the green jacket.
This year, at age 58, Langer had carved a two-under par 70 in gusty winds on Saturday to improbably move into third place and bid to become the oldest major winner by a decade, two strokes off the pace set by Spieth. Faldo was in fact right about lightning striking again in the same place – he just had the wrong year. His foreshadowing should have lasered in on another eventful Masters, eleven years later in 1996. In that final round Greg Norman painfully gave back a six-stroke lead on Sunday and lost to an Englishman who shot a flawless 67 – Sir Nick himself.
The Spieth Story
The 2016 Masters was entirely the story of Jordan Spieth. He opened with a 66 and led after each of the first three rounds. Along the way he punctured golfdom’s Big Three by taking apart Rory McIlroy in a Saturday head-to-head duel. Battling a balky putter, McIlroy nonetheless pulled within a stroke of Spieth after 36 holes and the battle among top players fans have craved was upon us for the third round. McIlroy not only didn’t show up, the former World Number One failed to make a single birdie for the first time in 80 rounds in a major. Spieth bogied the final two holes to shoot over par, but beat McIlroy’s 77 by four strokes. The Northern Irishman wasn’t even in the Top Ten heading into the final round.
On Sunday Spieth unfurled five birdies on “a dream front nine,” as he later stated. He had a five-stroke lead and had the golf world stumbling over itself to list all the records that he would shatter before he celebrated his 23rd birthday, when he putted out about two hours hence. And then the 1996 script kicked in, almost verbatim. This being 2016 and the digital age where attention spans have shrunk like the cups of the back nine on Masters Sunday, the entire scenario was accelerated, naturally. Instead of taking 18 holes, Spieth’s collapse happened in three holes, really in 12 minutes real time. But after two balls into Rae’s Creek on the treacherous #12, even a courageous up-and-in from the back bunker for a quadruple bogey seven didn’t revive his chances to win back the tournament.
So Jordan Spieth lost the 2016 Masters. Many are anointing it the worst collapse in golf’s history. Worse than Norman’s loss at Augusta to Faldo in 1996. Worse than Arnold Palmer’s losing a seven-stroke lead with nine to play in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic when he aggressively tried to break the Open scoring record rather than nurse a lead over steady Billy Casper. Worse certainly than journeyman Jean van de Velde’s meltdown on the 18th hole at Carnoustie in the 1999 Open Championship.
But how big a collapse was this, really? People will remember the lost five-stroke lead and fixate on the 12th hole debacle. But Spieth was hardly playing well – far, far from it. The four birdies in a row on the front nine were long putt on #6, approach shot that rolled thirty feet down a slope to within three feet on #7, two putts on #8 and a long putt on #9. His other birdie on the front nine was two putts on #2. The Augusta woods spit back his tee ball on #4, #10 and #17. A drive stayed in the Georgia pines on #11 where he made the second of back-to-back bogies before he butchered #12. Spieth didn’t let the driver out of his golf bag most of the day.
What was shocking about the meltdown wasn’t so much that it happened, but the swiftness at which it occurred. Not only had Jordan Spieth led the Masters for 65 holes in 2016, but he had led the Masters for an unprecedented 137 consecutive holes –and just like that it was gone. But the fact of the matter is that even if Spieth hadn’t put his second ball in the Raes Creek at #12 and made a not-uncommon double bogey instead of quad, he wouldn’t have beat Danny Willett.
Danny Willett Earned This One
And finally, we come to Danny Willett. A 28-year old Englishman, Willet’s relatively unknown despite being the 12th ranked player in the world (so by the standards of the “Big Three”, not worth knowing about). He had a 6th place finish in the Open Championship last year, a win in the European Masters, and in February he won the biggest purse in golf at the Dubai Desert Classic. In his final round of the Masters Willett was bogey-free, never in need of scrambling, and didn’t show any nerves until the 18th green when he lagged an anti-climactic birdie putt from 20 feet to clean up a five-under par 67. Make no mistake, Danny Willett won this Masters. If you put on a videotape of Willett’s 18 holes Sunday side-by-side to Spieth’s 18 holes, it would be easy to decide who should have won this tournament.
All the talk was about Jordan Spieth and will continue to be about Jordan Spieth going forward – how big a scar will this leave, how will he handle his first career setback, etc., etc. But do not forget, Danny Willett beat Jordan Spieth at the 2016 Masters. And he did it on the golf course.